Asia > Eastern Asia > China > Saving face on the Korean Peninsula

China: Saving face on the Korean Peninsula

2017/05/07

Kim Jong-un sees nuclear capability as almost his sole source of regime security and he is not going to give it up, no matter how strong the pressure. He is not stupid. All he has to do is to look at the history of Iraq and Libya, where neither dictator had nuclear weapons. So if the United States insists on de-nuclearisation of the peninsula, presumably that would require regime change, and regime change is unlikely without the use of force. War in the area would be hugely destabilising and potentially disastrous. No one in their right mind should want that.

China is right to urge negotiations, but what is to be negotiated? Kim is not going to negotiate away his own security by giving up his nuclear capability. But if China exerts sufficient pressure, he may acknowledge to stop testing.

At the same time as asked recently about the possibility of recognising North Korea as a nuclear weapons national in order to begin negotiations, the chief of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), Lassina Zerbo, pointed to the problems that it would raise with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But something like the Six Party Talks (SPT) could be resumed, taking the situation as it presently is, rather than insisting that North Korea give up its nuclear capability as a prerequisite for convening the talks.

Still, how does everyone save face on such a road to renewed negotiations?

One possibility may be for China to privately convince the United States that Pyongyang simply will not give up its nuclear capability but is potentially willing to stop testing. Beijing could as well convince North Korea that it should temporarily stop testing and request reconvening the SPT.

It would be significant to do this all behind closed doors. If both sides acknowledge, again the public news would be that North Korea has stopped testing and is asking for negotiations. Trump could again say, ‘Look what we have forced them to do’, while Kim could say, ‘Look, the terrified US has agreed to our insistence on negotiations’. The public would again draw a great sigh of relief that war had been avoided.

Why would this approach be in the interests of North Korea, the United States and China?

For Kim Jong-un, provoking a war would be suicidal. While no pressure would convince him to give up his nuclear capability, the Chinese could probably convince him to acknowledge to stop testing at least temporarily. Kim must as well realise that, for the United States, a war presently would be better than a war later as North Korea’s nuclear capability is very likely to increase over time.

As has been suggested, if the United States has indeed developed a cyber capability to destroy North Korean missiles during tests, again continued testing by Kim risks additional test failures, which do not contribute to his domestic political authority. So why not just acknowledge to negotiations and stop testing?

Trump’s position is that previous US policies toward North Korea have failed, so he must produce something new. If North Korea calls for negotiations and stop testing, Trump could describe that event as the successful result of the new US policy, and he could identify China’s role in encouraging Pyongyang’s change as Beijing responding to Washington’s insistence that China do additional.

One thing that the United States should not do is to try to intercept and destroy North Korean missiles during the testing phase using its problematic missile defence capability. These tests, at least so far, have not endangered any allies. If the US attempts to shoot them down again there is a good luck that they would miss, and a missed effort would make Trump look weak — something he obviously wants to avoid.

China has an opportunity here to demonstrate to the world that it is a major player on key world security issues and that it can help to bring together potential adversaries to discuss and negotiate their differences, rather than to fight wars. Following on from Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos, China could claim that mediating the crisis in Korea was an example of China’s role as ‘one of the rising great powers of the world’, fully prepared and capable of playing a responsible role in world affairs.

Xi could as well point out that China’s mediation commitment was clear evidence of his willingness to work with Trump in a cooperative way on the majority significant problems of the day.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Washington, Pyongyang and Beijing have a lot additional to lose than just face if tensions continue to escalate on the Korean Peninsula.

Related Articles
  • Macron wins Chinese fans with Mandarin lesson

    2018/01/15 A behind-the-scenes video of French President Emmanuel Macron wrestling with the Mandarin pronunciation of his climate change slogan "Make our planet great again" has delighted Chinese social media. The candid footage shows Macron sneezing and wondering at the same time as to breathe as he diligently repeats the phrase next his instructor, while a woman touches up his make-up and two bemused men in military garb look on.
  • China lodges protest against Australian 'white elephant' remarks

    2018/01/15 China lodged a formal diplomatic turmoil on Wednesday next a senior Australian minister called Chinese infrastructure projects in the Pacific "white elephants", the new spat in increasingly contentious relations. Friction between the two nations grew last month next Australia singled out China as a focus of concern at the same time as it proposed laws on foreign interference, drawing a furious response from Beijing.
  • What we can expect from China’s economy in 2018

    2018/01/13 In 2017, we saw the consolidation of China’s power and influence globally, and of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s power nationally. This year, the party will try to use this to tackle some of its biggest economic hurdles such as financial risk, environmental pollution and maintaining social cohesion. A initial and overriding priority will be managing and preventing major financial risks within the Chinese economy. China will continue to clean up and tighten controls over its financial sector. Beijing has by presently banned risk-laden Bitcoin from its economy, and the government says it will maintain a “proactive fiscal policy and prudent monetary policy” for 2018.
  • Singapore to focus on themes of resilience, innovation as ASEAN chairman

    2018/01/13 Singapore will focus on strengthening the collective resilience of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) inclunding promoting innovation part member economies, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said as he launched the country's chairmanship of the regional bloc with songs, dance and food. “The last time we chaired ASEAN was in 2007 and we are very happy to be chairing it again,” Mr Lee said on Friday (Jan 12) at the Experience ASEAN launch event held at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Visitors can look forward to food, craft stalls and performances from the region at the event held from Friday to Sunday.
  • World food prices up 8.2% in 2017

    2018/01/13 World food prices rose by 8.2 % in 2017 compared to 2016, the UN's food agency said on Friday (Jan 12). The Food and Agriculture Organisation said that its FAO Food Price Index averaged 174.6 points in 2017, the highest annual average since 2014. In December alone, however, the index - a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities - stood at 169.8 points, down 3.3 % from November, the FAO said in a statement.